Friday, 14 February 2014

Lunch Lessons

When I was a teenager and a frequenter of dining establishments open in the wee hours of the morning, there was a chalkboard in the local Denny’s foyer which stated “You only get three meals a day. Don’t waste them”. I have often pondered this bit of culinary wisdom when contemplating my vacillating waistline and America’s growing obesity problem.

I would rather make a bit of an effort to make myself something delicious for breakfast rather than resorting to toast, which I consider a sad excuse for a meal (unless it’s whole-wheat toast with Hellman’s mayo, avocado and chopped red onion  or similar). For lunch on work days, I usually dine “al desco”, but at least take the time to savour whatever I've made the effort to pack for myself.

When I started my job in Suva, I religiously took my lunch every day. The first day that I left it on the kitchen counter at home, I was stuck. Where would I get my lunch that wasn't too expensive? There’s not an M&S, Waitrose or even Starbucks in sight. The little restaurants dotted around the area of Toorak where I work looked too scary to enter, let alone eat anything out of. That day, I spent my entire lunch hour walking down to Dolphin Food Court to get sushi from the Daikoku. It really is the best take-out sushi I've ever eaten, but it’s a long way to walk and the entire way back is uphill.

The next time I forgot my lunch, I decided to brave one of the local Chinese eateries. I watched the person in front of me in the queue being served an enormous pile of food. When the server turned to me, I asked him to give me a small amount of rice and chicken. He plopped a paddle-full of rice that would have served at least two people into a Styrofoam container. He looked surprised when I stopped him serving me another pile of equal size. He covered the rice in a generous serving of chicken stir-fry and again seemed puzzled when I told him that was all that I wanted. “You want pork?” he asked holding up another ladle full of food. I said no and turned to the register to pay, glancing back, I saw the guy ladling more food into my takeout container. When I asked him what he was doing (politely) he said that obviously I didn't want pork, so I must want lamb.

As I sweatily trudged up the hill back to work with 1.5kg of lunch in a thin plastic bag every bad restaurant-related environmental health story ran through my head until I felt like I was carrying a throbbing bio-bomb. Then something happened that has never happened to me before and hasn't happened to me since – a destitute young man asked me if he could have my lunch.  I was as grateful to give it to him as he was to receive it. To be honest, I pretty much tossed it to him like it was a live grenade.

Fast-forward a couple of months and now I hardly ever take my lunch to work. This is because I have been shown the amazing secrets of Indian fast food. Sometimes I get Indian snacks late morning from the friendly staff at Khana Kazana on Toorak Road. If you haven’t had an idli (a steamed bready thing that looks like a flying saucer that’s been stuffed with a fresh chutney of grated fresh coconut, dhania (cilantro/fresh coriander) and chopped chilli, you should make it a culinary mission. They also make a fried spinach fritter things which are amazing as are their gulgula (little donuts). And it’s so inexpensive that it’s not even worth contemplating making them at home.

 You have to get here after 9am and before lunch if you want to bag an idli.

If I want a proper lunch, I walk down to the Curry House. You have to cross the most dangerous intersection for paedestrians in Suva (the corner of Renwick St and Raojibhai Patel Street) to get there, but it’s worth it for the vegetarian thali (2 veggie curries with 2 rotis) for FJ$4.95. Cleverly origamied in butcher paper and wrapped in a plastic (the local term for a plastic bag) I sprint back up the big hill to work so that I can devour it without even resorting to a fork or spoon (I've become an expert at eating with roti rather than cutlery).


Running the traffic gauntlet to get to the Curry House.

This culinary discovery has piqued my interest in cooking Indian food at home – taking advantage of the amazing seafood and produce at the market to make a more healthy version of what’s available at restaurants and also to prepare me for the sad time when we’ll have to leave Fiji (and the Curry House, Khaza Khazana and my other favourite, Maya Dhaba).

What my Rick Stein book looked like before a cat peed on the book jacket.

Santa brought me a Rick Stein’s India cookbook. I’ve managed to find all of the non-mainstream ingredients that I've needed from Halwai’s Spice World (aka Zealot Agencies aka Halwai’s Spice Castle). I briefly earned the scorn of the proprietor by asking if he sold coriander seed, which I couldn't find in any of the little store-packed plastic bags. “Do I sell coriander seed?” he muttered to himself leading me to a large burlap sack full of coriander seed, which the locals obviously buy in amounts that would take me a lifetime to get through. At that point, a lovely middle-aged Indo-Fijian fellow shopper took my arm and led me through the rest of my shopping list.

The name of this place is lost on me, but it has every Indian Spice imaginable.

It truly is a castle of spice.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of places to eat lunch in Suva – the little deli upstairs at Prouds makes good sandwiches, the food courts at Tappoo and MCHH have a huge amount of choice – noodles, Korean, Fijian, etc…). There’s even a McDonald’s. But by destroying my prejudices about what a restaurant should look like, I have totally expanded my culinary horizons. And for a person in their 50th year that’s been obsessed with food since birth, that’s quite an achievement.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

There’s no place like home...

By mid-December, home was feeling very far away. Worn out by work, emotionally fraught by the death of our hand-raised kitten by a pack of dogs and exhausted by the increasing heat and humidity, I was ready to escape from Suva for a few weeks. Home not only felt far away, it really was far away. While we achieved a three month sea voyage in a mere thirty five hours I cannot recommend it. A younger body can probably withstand being confined in a small space like a battery hen for two 10-11 hour flights in a row, but as I am in my 50th year I can say with complete certainty that it is not a good idea. I made the mistake of grabbing a burrito at the new food court at the international terminal at LAX and eating it as we sat down on our flight to London. I now know what a boa constrictor feels like after it swallows a small goat.

Having been away from the North East of England for sixteen months, my not very surprising conclusions were that it was dark and full of germs. Of course it is also full of some of my favourite people in the entire world and this more than made up for living with heavy colds in a perpetual cycle of dusk and night. For those of you unfamiliar with the Newcastle upon Tyne area, it’s famous for three things: the locals (Geordies) and their imperviousness to the cold (boob tubes and miniskirts at -10c? Really?); their dialect (wye aye, man); and football (Howay the lads!). I love Newcastle for many reasons, including the fact that a women 30 years younger than me ringing up my groceries calls me “pet” without the slightest affectation, that the area continues to undergo a transformative food renaissance and that the surrounding countryside and coastline is full of amazing places with very few people to spoil it.

 Our friend David, the Earth Doctor Baker

Experiencing my first Christmas in the England in the late 1980s, the excess was shocking to me. Any culture where you’re expected to eat a dried fruit and suet pudding which has been drenched in brandy and lightened up with either crème anglaise or double cream after a day of eating canapés and a full turkey dinner is serious about testing the limits of overindulgence and waistbands. And it goes on for days – Christmas starts around the end of the first week of December with parties and ends when everyone feels ill from chronic over-eating and -drinking on the first of January. Of course all resolutions about losing weight are on hold until the last Terry’s Chocolate Orange and wedge of Stilton is gone. I am pleased to say that our 2014 Christmas didn't disappoint – amazing food, wine, wonderful friends and family. How lucky we are to love and get along with our families!

However, it was strange to be home without really being home. The sense of displacement was slightly discombobulating – like the sense of vertigo when you’re standing in the surf and a wave is receding around your ankles. We declined the kind offer from the tenant of our house to come meet her and have a look around as it just sounded too weird. We left feeling like we had only really just begun our visit, already looking forward to and making plans to see everyone again.

Thankfully, we’d plan to break up our trip in California on the way home to see family. Our flight was uneventful except for the bizarre use of the English language by the flight attendant on American Airlines. At one point she said, “Please wait for the captain to extinguish the seatbelt sign before leaving your seats”. Are they on fire? Powered by gaslight? Perhaps we need to stay in our seats while he traipses up and down the aisles with his candle snuffer?
Spudnuts - just one more reason to love the USA

The Santa Barbara weather was like summer and we savoured the cool sunshine, having been warned about the increasing heat and humidity in Suva. Again, there was too much eating and drinking (and shopping in the sales) and before we knew it, it was time to go home, this time to Fiji. Back at LAX, we decided to forego burritos and stick with sushi at the Flying Fish. As an American I was totally embarrassed by the waiting staff there – we want you to serve us food, not form a lifetime bond with you. The final straw was when we paid for our meal. “Ooh, you bank with Wells Fargo too”, she cooed, cuddling my debit card to her cheek. Not only is that inappropriate, it’s unsanitary.
Beachcombing at Gaviota State Park

We were excited to get back to our cats and the new Damodar City complex, which contains an expat-life-changing grocery store (see post about it here). Home feels so much more like home when you can get A1 Steak Sauce, green taco sauce and marshmallow fluff.

Friday, 27 December 2013

The Fiji List

New Year, new resolution, and I here I state publicly that in 2014 I will post on my blog at least once a month. I've enjoyed keeping the blog for its diary-like qualities and for the challenge of stringing words together in a pleasing way, but what I didn't expect was the number of people who have contacted me through the blog. Some want to know practical details about living in Fiji because they are arriving imminently.  Some are considering moving to Fiji and want to know the down and dirty on specific aspects of expat life. Then there are the other requests for guest blog posts (not a chance – too busy to write my own blog, thanks very much), a request for an interview for a travel magazine (unfortunately dropped into my inbox during frenzied work activity, so ignored) and a very sweet request to be interviewed as part of a student project (Clay & Co - you know who you are!).

When I first arrived in Suva I observed that the happiest expats were those that are counting down to their leaving dates. At first I took this as a sign that you could only be happy in Fiji when you were on your way out. Eventually I figured out that these people were frantically squeezing in their Fiji list of things to do (aka bucket list – hate that term) in their remaining tenure, resulting in a steady stream of what most people would consider holidays of a lifetime.

Once I realised this, I knew that we needed to make our own Fiji list and, more importantly, start ticking the items off without the pressure of an impending move. At the top of our list was visiting the Yasawas, so at the end of September, we booked a week long Blue Lagoon Cruise. Now, cruising isn't our thing - I strive not to look anything like those sweaty, slightly lost-looking people wandering through the streets of Suva with cruise-branded lanyards around their necks.  Any local rip-off artist that approaches me when a cruise ship is in town gets a “talk to the hand” palm in their face and a don’t-mess-with-me-I-live-here look.  However, the small boutique-boat BLC got rave reviews from friends and Anna, unlike us, was so enamoured with the idea of a cruise that she agreed to share a cabin with us.

Armed with a brand new underwater camera for John, we left Suva on the 7:30am Coral Express bus and by lunchtime we’d entered Fiji’s parallel universe – the well-oiled, international tourist world that is Denarau Island. Clean and slick, we finally saw what the majority of visitors see when they come to Fiji and we liked it. Except for the prices. How much for a Fiji Gold? You’re having a laugh - at our expense.

Beer o'clock on deck.

Because John and I have gradually turned into grumpy old people, we eyed the children running around the dock with our cruise ship name tags on their shirts and grumbled about how we were certain that the website had stated that children were not allowed on the ship. Boarding the ship, we were amazed to find that we were joined by only 14 other passengers on a ship that can hold around 65 passengers. The crew were friendly, the food generous and, despite our cantankerousness, the children delightful. How could you refuse to join a fancy hat competition when a nine year old offers to share her beachcombing hat-adorning treasures with you?

Yasawa-i-Lau caves - coldest I've been in Fiji.

During the next seven days, we stopped at Modriki Island (where Castaway was filmed), visited villages, made new friends, ate five meals a day, stopped smiling for several days due to sunburned lips (I was still happy inside), snorkeled until we were pruney, dived on healthy reefs and generally reveled in some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. I never knew that water came in so many shades of blue.

John took hundred (thousands?) of underwater photographs – mostly close ups. His attention to the art of photographing corals is laudable except that it means that his buddy (usually me) could be kidnapped by pirates or eaten by sharks (or both) without him noticing. On one dive, his dive buddy saw five sharks and he saw none.


The ship tied to a coconut tree in the Blue Lagoon.

One of John's amazing close-ups.

I’d love to say that we’re definitely going to go back to the Yasawas – especially now that we've seen lots of placed that we’d like to go back to. However, we still have other items on our Fiji List to tick off first including the islands of Taveuni, Kadavu and the Lau group, the old capital of Levuka and whitewater rafting on the Navua River. So much to do - fortunately we still have a lot of time.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Cooking with Contraband

I waste an inordinate amount of time productively. Since moving to Fiji, I've expanded my vocabulary playing Words with Friends to include the very useful qi, dox, kine and za. I now have a good working knowledge of how Twitter works to the point that I gave my sister an hour long tutorial on Skype.  I have an active and attractive account on Pinterest (who takes all of those amazing photos?) and have accumulated about a thousand recipes to try some time in the future when I've got time. Oh, wait a minute, I do have time.

Actually, I do cook a lot here. After the initial honeymoon period with Fiji when there were still so many restaurants to try and not be disappointed by we ate out a lot. Eventually, we settled on our two favourites – Maya Dhaba (best butter chicken and naan bread ever) and Bad Dog (sashimi starter is the best thing on the menu). The combination of expanding waistbands and a shrinking bank account meant that cooking again seemed like a good idea. During my early attempts I usually ended up having to shower afterwards because I’d get so sweaty (one particularly memorable occasion included carmelised banana pancakes on a blazing hot morning – what was I thinking?). However, I learned how and where to shop (the market, Lazy Chef, Whaleys), what to avoid (local sausages and minced beef) and to turn the air con on if the temperature outside was already uncomfortable.

Unless it’s tipping it down or the outside atmosphere is sauna-like, barbecuing is an option and we do it a lot. In fact, I've started to wonder if I’m getting medieval northern European lung disease from the amount of particulate matter I've inhaled trying to light slightly damp charcoal with substandard firelighters. Our little back patio is eerily like our little patio in England, except in England we don’t light our patio with Tiki lanterns and the bats flying overhead don’t look capable of carrying off small dogs.

 Alex and Anna demonstrate the correct use of the patio.

Travelling and eating go together like wine and cheese, bread and butter and Fred and Ginger. When I’m in California I head straight for In–n-Out and order a cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate shake, eat Mexican food from taquerias, search for the perfect margarita and eat a lot of hot Italian sausages. In France it’s Breton butter with crunch seasalt crystals smeared thickly on bread. In Fiji, it’s tuna. Tuna steaks on the grill with garlic aioli and grilled tomato salsa, made with mint and fresh coriander (dhania here in Fiji). Raw tuna sliced and served with Japanese rice balls, wasabi, lime and finely diced locally grown chillies and fresh ginger. Leftover tuna made into salad. Tuna, tuna, tuna. We never get sick of it in our attempts to deplete the Pacific of its most delicious fish. We get our tuna from Island Ika, who post what’s in everyday on their Facebook page and, refreshingly from a health and safety perspective, keep their fish on ice. We have to eat a lifetime’s worth of tuna during our stay here as the average lump of tuna that I buy for sashimi at home would cost about a week’s salary in the UK.

My foodie photos will not be on Pinterest any time soon.

Other things that we feel the need to consume a lot of during our stay in Fiji include passionfruit, pineapple, cassava (who would have thought tree root could taste so delicious?) and New Zealand’s Tip Top Cookies and Cream Ice Cream. Local fish and produce are relatively inexpensive as long as you buy in season – during my year here, tomatoes have ranged in price from FJ$1 to FJ$18 a heap. Heaps are the unit of measure in the markets here and literally are heaps of whatever either piled up on the table or in small bowls. It does pay to ask how much things are before you start getting them to fill your bags at the market just in case you end up with a FJ$7.00 red onion like I did.

Imported food, on the other hand, is expensive and reliance on it can lead to bitter disappointment. Mayonnaise, for example. I grew up eating Best Foods mayonnaise, which personally, I think is the best in the world. Some of you may know it as Hellmans since though the two companies merged in 1932 they haven’t got around to unifying their brand names. I was relieved to see Best Foods for sale at Cost u Less when we first arrived, but after a few months there was none on the shelves. At that point, I hadn't learned the finer points of hoarding and paid for it. Antipodean mayonnaise is disgusting. I don’t know what they make it out of, but every brand we tried tasted like salad cream made with machine oil and a large dollop of sugar. We mourned for garlic aioli and tuna salad as did others who lamented to lack of good mayo on the Suva Expat Facebook page. However, we did drop a few pounds.

When we first arrived, we had English visitors, one of whom was incensed that the best condiment in the world, A1 Steak Sauce, had been invented by the Americans. Well, I could write an entire post about Americans and condiments (my neighbour in the UK who inherited all of our condiments joked that he had a special cupboard made just for our mustard). Lo and behold, out shopping the next day I found A1. Anna was instantly enamoured and it went straight to her top ten tastes of all times. Of course, we haven’t seen it since.

My current obsession at the moment is sourdough. September is sourdough month and with that in mind, I thought that I’d see if you could make a successful sourdough starter in Fiji with nothing but rye flour and water. Fijian microbes are notorious for being super-sized. You are advised by people that have been here longer than you and survived with all of their limbs intact that any cut or scratched bit needs regular liberal applications of anti-bacterial cream and that you need to have a low threshold for antibiotic seeking behaviour if you get any sort of lurgy. Well, I can tell you that within 48 hours I had a sourdough that smelled like Newcastle Brewery on a still day bubbling away on my counter.

On the counter is a bowl of the good stuff waiting to be made into sourdough poppy seed pancakes tomorrow morning. I brought the poppy seeds back from Australia in May because I couldn't find any here. I've since been told that poppy seeds are now on a list of things that cannot be brought into the country, presumably because there’s a fear that we might start producing opium. Well, I’m not going to waste my poppy seeds trying to grow them. I’m going to eat them and savour every precious bite.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

My new favourite expression

How could I not have heard the term FoMO (Fear of Missing Out)? I know the FoMO concept intimately, having suffered from it my entire life. It explains quite a lot of my behavioural quirks, like wandering around the house while brushing my teeth in case something else more interesting is going on or appearing at breakfast when we have houseguests, half dressed with wet hair, lest I miss a bit of news that my family members with certainly neglect to tell me later.

Being a FoMOist has its upsides. It’s what allows you to chivvy your companions along while walking around strange cities as you search for a restaurant better than the one you are standing in front of, which means occasionally you stumble on a real gem. It’s what gives you the curiosity to try every strange fruit that you come across in the market despite the fact that, up until you tried a mangosteen two days ago, you haven’t tasted a delicious new fruit since you tried a kiwifruit in 1978. It’s what makes you appear adventurous when what you really are is a perennial worrier, wondering if something bigger, better or more interesting is just out of sight around the theoretical corner.

Strange fruit – mangosteen, where have you been all of my life?

However, I suspect many FoMOists are paralysed with indecision because for every positive decision they make, there are the infinite possibilities that they’ve excluded by making that decision. This is typically demonstrated at restaurants, where FoMOists have a difficult time ordering from a large menu (“if I have the Caesar salad, which I love, I won’t be able to try the flambéed frogs’ legs, which might be delicious!”).

Of course, indecision impacts on bigger life events. For example, if you decide to be a fireman, you have passively decided not to be a butcher, a baker or a brain surgeon among other things. Therefore, I suspect most FoMOists let their lives play out, occasionally making some inexplicable (to themselves and to their friends) monumental decision based on nothing more than the fear that there might be something on the other side of that decision than is more exhilarating than where they happen to be standing at the moment of decision-making. That’s my excuse anyway.

Mind you, there was little opportunity for FoMO on mine and Anna’s recent trip to California because our days were absolutely packed with great things. Alex joined us from the UK and we saw every brother, sister, niece, nephew, brother- and sister-in-law on my side of the family. I also managed to see some of my very oldest friends from my early childhood who had the decency to still look young. Alex and Anna experienced their first US 4th of July (not a particularly popular holiday in the UK), we saw the awesome San Jose Earthquakes-LA Galaxy match at Stanford Stadium, picked berries in Santa Ynez, squeezed in three family birthday parties and went to the beach as many times as possible.

While we were stuffing in as much California culture as we could, John was back in Fiji running the Pacific Science Association Conference and looking after the four kittens that were delivered to our living room by a little stray that we’d been feeding. The conference was a success and the kittens well-adjusted enough to place in good homes. And yes, I do tell John he’s a hero at least a couple of times a week.

The kittens were replaced by the same number of toads soon after they were re-homed.

Back in Fiji, our UK next door neighbours came to visit on their round-the-world adventure. They embraced the Fijian experience whole-heartedly (despite it being so chilly that I had to don a fleece several times), going rafting on the Navua River, walking along the sea wall into Suva for a day’s sight-seeing, going off the rope swing at Colo-i-Suva and learning (and using) basic Fijian words. Their boys are going to be spoiled for life as on their second snorkel off of Naigani, we saw a white-tipped shark, a Ridley’s turtle as well as amazing coral cover. Seriously, there will be no point in them visiting the Caribbean now. On their last night here, we went to our usual, The Bad Dog, to toast them bon voyage with colourful cocktails/mocktails with them in their full bula regalia.

It’s times like that I can ignore my FoMO tendencies because I’m sure that if I were able to peek around the theoretical corner, my little piece of the world would be better than anything I might see on the other side.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Concept Home

A couple of days before we left Australia for Fiji after John’s successful op, I was startled to realise that I was looking forward to going home. I wanted to see our daughter, our cats and sleep in our own bed but it was the sensation of “going home” to Suva that caught me off guard.

Our Fijian home away from home.

How and when the shift to having Suva feel like home is something that I was unaware of and I’m sort of at a loss to explain. It’s not like we’re surrounded by our own stuff here as we left most of it in a friend’s garage in the North of England. I still feel like we’re camping out in someone else’s house. Besides, after losing so many of our possessions (and our jobs) in 1989 due to Hurricane Hugo when we lived on St Croix, I've sort of lost my attachment to material things. Nothing like experiencing a storm of the century first hand, emerging without things but with all of your loved ones intact to make you realise what’s important in life.

Some of it must be down to creating a life for myself here. Life as a trailing spouse (hate that expression) can be a terribly lonely experience. You have to put yourself out there to find purposeful activity and friends even if you’re painfully shy. Otherwise you’ll end up only socialising with your partner’s colleagues. Not that I’m suggesting that your partner’s colleagues (or mine) aren't lovely, fun people, but you’d be very lucky indeed to get all of your emotional and social support from a pre-selected group of people.

When we moved to England from the West Indies, John started travelling a lot for work. In fact, we hadn't been in Newcastle for two weeks before he basically moved to Leeds to do some lab work at St James Infirmary (cutting edge science on sea anemones in a human fertility lab – imagine the looks when people saw what was in his petri dishes in the lift). I remember that time as being lonely, grey and very, very cold. Then we moved out to our lovely neighbourhood in Northumberland (in 1992 and we stayed until 2012) and our children were born and John continued to travel, but to foreign, exotic, tropical countries for long periods.

In the early days, he’d come home from a trip and I’d say “thank God you’re home, let’s go out!” at the same time that he’d say “thank God I’m home, I’m not leaving the house!” This was not compatible with a happy marriage. That’s when I had a parental “eureka” moment and started to engage our series of wonderful babysitters (Jenny C, Andrea & Leila R, Lynsey W) when John was away. This allowed me the freedom to attend girls’ nights at the pub, curry nights at friends, etc... Acquaintances that I knew from baby and toddler groups started to cement themselves into lifelong friendships through the shared experience of having a great time without being distracted by wiping snotty noses or keeping the children from breaking their necks on the play equipment.

At some point during that time there was a seismic shift and Hagg Bank, a higgledy-piggledy collection of two-up two-down brick railway cottages perched on the River Tyne, became home. But not just the place I craved to return to at the end of the day for a cup of tea or something a little stronger, it became my geographic and emotional centre. It was the place that I’d put down the deepest roots, the place that I am certain that I will forever get wistful about when I’m away from it. My late sister had a theory about the deep sense of home – home is not where you've grown up, it's where you've grown things like children or gardens – whatever requires love and attention.

My vegetable garden - one of the things that I miss the most about England.

Of course going home to Hagg Bank would require kicking out the tenants, leaving our current jobs, finding new ones, disrupting Anna’s schooling, transporting the cats - not to mention getting all of our furniture out of the garage and reconstructing it from memory using Allen keys and a lot of expletives. So for the meantime, home is Suva. Our roots might not be deep, but they are growing.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Birthday Reflections


Everyone knows that getting old sucks. At least that’s what you think when you’re young. However, when you get to middle-age - when the “c-word” changes from the word that rhymes with hunt to the word that rhymes with answer - you realise that you want to become that cheerful frail old lady that you see walking very slowly down the road pulling her shopping trolley or the old man with the flat cap sitting at the bus stop. The alternative is just not that appealing. The “I hope I die before I get old” attitude is a young person’s lie. And while it is tolerated with a knowing smile by us old(er) people, the holding of such a belief is a sure sign of a not-fully-formed mind.

And getting old isn't all bad. Ok, you might forget what things are called, what you were saying mid-sentence or that the phone that you've been looking for the last five minutes is actually in your hand, but if you’re lucky you might finally be making a decent wage, have started to take yourself less seriously and have acquired a modicum of wisdom.

When I turned 36, my husband forgot my birthday.* I’m not going to lie – it felt like the end of the world and our marriage. His subsequent attempts to buy me presents (camping gear – hah!) and a lemon tree (which I purposely neglected for several years before it finally gave up the ghost) only made matters worse. Looking back on it now I realise that I was the perpetrator of my own misery that day, which my mother went to great pains to explain to me at the time. Did I listen? I never did before and I wasn't going to start then. Well, eventually I did figure it out, but I would have been a lot happier if I’d been quicker on the uptake.

A marital milestone occurred when we went our first family holiday with only one nearly grown-up child. Camping in Cornwall for ten days sounded like a perfect way to test the impending dynamics of our shrinking family unit while Alex was in California with cousins. Realising the long-term impact of the following days, John and I made a pact not to bicker - for the entire trip. Now, those of you that have ever camped know that setting up a tent is pretty much the only time that you are 100% guaranteed to fall out with someone. (For a hilarious book about family camping, read The Tent, the Bucket and Me). Well, John and I set up our enormous over-sized tent on a blustery, damp day on the The Lizard with nary a cross word. I’m not saying that a miracle happened on that trip, but it was pretty close.

Anna and John on the South West Coast Path in 2010.

Fast forward a couple of years and I can say with complete certainty, that if we hadn't progressed past the Bickerson stage, we’d never been able to pull off our move to Fiji. First, there’s no way Anna would have come. Second, third and fourth, there were about a thousand times during the process of the move and settling in period that either of us could have said “sod this for a game of soldiers” or worse. And finally, if we’d expended precious energy on brooding, reviling and recriminating, we would have been very lonely indeed.

A wonderful Cornish holiday...

I’m not saying that we always get along. When we arrived in Melbourne recently for John’s gallbladder operation, we’d been travelling for about ten hours. Opening the hotel room door, we agreed that we’d arrived just in the nick of time because we’d begun to grate on each other’s nerves. The difference is that I didn’t demand to know why I was irritating him and vice versa.  That’s because we’re finally old enough to know better.

On the day of John’s surgery, I turned 49. I recognised the birthday card he pulled out of the nightstand - he’d obviously purchased in the Ian Potter Gallery gift shop when I went to the toilet the day before. (As a good friend pointed out, it’s better than getting a card from the toilet while I was in the gift shop.) Inside he’d written “Happy Birthday, Beautiful Wife”. Honestly, could there be a better gift than that?

John’s hospital roommate was a talkative elderly gentleman called Derrick. Derrick was in Exeter during WWII. He briefly recounted the bombing raids by the Germans, saying finally, “And in the mornings we woke up and said ‘good morning’ and we meant it”.

Eventually the “c-word” will start to mean care home and an adventure will be travelling down to the bottom of the garden and back. Until then and beyond, I plan to greet each morning with a grateful hello and I’m going to mean it too.


*In fairness, John has asked me to state that once when he presented me with a gift of beautiful earrings on our anniversary, I argued the toss with him that he’d got the dates wrong. He hadn't.